Klein Vs Mehrtens: Restoring the reputation of a great modern

J. Bair, P. Błaszczyk, P. Heinig, M. Katz, J. P. Schafermeyer, D. Sherry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Historian Herbert Mehrtens sought to portray the history of turn-of-the-century mathematics as a struggle of modern vs countermodern, led respectively by David Hilbert and Felix Klein. Some of Mehrtens' conclusions have been picked up by both historians (Jeremy Gray) and mathematicians (Frank Quinn). We argue that Klein and Hilbert, both at Göttingen, were not adversaries but rather modernist allies in a bid to broaden the scope of mathematics beyond a narrow focus on arithmetized analysis as practiced by the Berlin school. Klein's Göttingen lecture and other texts shed light on Klein's modernism. Hilbert's views on intuition are closer to Klein's views than Mehrtens is willing to allow. Klein and Hilbert were equally interested in the axiomatisation of physics. Among Klein's credits is helping launch the career of Abraham Fraenkel, and advancing the careers of Sophus Lie, Emmy Noether, and Ernst Zermelo, all four surely of impeccable modernist credentials. Mehrtens' unsourced claim that Hilbert was interested in production rather than meaning appears to stem from Mehrtens' marxist leanings. Mehrtens' claim that [the future SS-Brigadeführer] \Theodor Vahlen . . . cited Klein's racist distinctions within mathematics, and sharpened them into open antisemitism" fabricates a spurious continuity between the two figures mentioned and is thus an odious misrepresentation of Klein's position.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-219
Number of pages31
JournalMatematychni Studii
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2017


  • Arithmetized analysis
  • Axiomatisation of geometry
  • Axiomatisation of physics
  • David Hilbert
  • Felix Klein
  • Formalism
  • Intuition
  • Karl Weierstrass
  • Mathematical realism
  • Modernism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Mathematics


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